National News

In New York High Schools, the Sound of Music Is Muted

Posted May 13, 2018 6:16 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When Carmen Laboy taught music at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, beginning in 1985, there were three concert bands. The pep band blasted “Malagueña” and Sousa marches on the sidelines at basketball games, and floated down Morris Park Avenue during the Columbus Day parade. The jazz band entertained crowds at the Ninth Avenue Food Festival, and even warmed the room at a Citizens Budget Commission awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.

Today, Columbus no longer exists. In its former building, which now houses five small high schools, a music teacher struggles to fill a single fledgling concert band. Working out of Laboy’s old band room in the basement, Steven Oquendo recruits students for a sole period of band class from his school, Pelham Preparatory Academy, and the others on campus, with their different bell schedules and conflicting academic priorities.

“It does make it much more difficult to teach,” he said. “But we always find a way of making it happen.”

Between 2002 and 2013, New York City closed 69 high schools, most of them large schools with thousands of students, and in their place opened new, smaller schools. Academically, these new schools inarguably serve students better. In 2009, the year before the city began closing Columbus, the school had a graduation rate of 37 percent. In 2017, the five small schools that occupy its former campus had a cumulative graduation rate of 81 percent.

But one downside of the new, small schools is that it is much harder for them to offer specialized programs, whether advanced classes, sports teams, or art or music classes, than it was for the large schools that they replaced. In the case of music, a robust program requires a large student body, and the money that comes with it, to offer a sequence of classes that allows students to progress from level to level, ultimately playing in a large ensemble where they will learn a challenging repertoire and get a taste of what it would be like to play in college or professionally.

In a large concert band, “you’re not the only trumpet player sitting there — there’s seven of you,” said Maria Schwab, a teacher at Public School 84 in Astoria, Queens, who is also a judge at festivals organized by the New York State School Music Association. “And you’re not the only clarinetist, but there’s a contingent of 10. In that large group, there’s a lot of repertoire open to you that would not be open to smaller bands.”

The new schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, himself a mariachi musician, has said that he plans to focus on the arts, which can especially benefit low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged students, according to the National Endowment of the Arts. A 2012 analysis of longitudinal studies found that eighth-graders who had been involved in the arts had higher test scores in science and writing than their counterparts, while high school students who earned arts credits had higher overall GPAs and were far more likely to graduate and attend college. The Bronx offers an illustration of how far Carranza has to go. There, 23 high schools were closed during the Bloomberg era, second only to Brooklyn. Of 59 small schools on 12 campuses that formerly housed large, comprehensive high schools, today only 18 have a full-time music teacher. In many of those, the only classes offered were music survey courses known as general music, or instruction in piano or guitar, or computer classes where students learn music production software. Only eight schools had concert bands, and of those, only five had both beginner and intermediate levels.

Herbert H. Lehman High School, for example, which has shrunk over the last decade to fewer than 700 students from more than 4,000, now offers only instruction in guitar. Pelham Lab High School, a small school on the Lehman campus, has three periods of vocal music. Meanwhile, at the John F. Kennedy campus, the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science offers one period of keyboard class, and an after-school glee club.

Musical opportunities are now concentrated in a small group of arts-focused schools, like the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, which require auditions, while students at most high schools in the borough have little opportunity to play music.

Music education in New York City schools faced challenges even before the breakup of the comprehensive high schools. During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, schools laid off thousands of arts teachers. For years after, many schools relied on community groups, or in some cases the city’s elite cultural institutions, to provide part-time music instruction, often through visiting artist programs.

Music programs were rebuilt in the 1990s, thanks in part to funding from the Annenberg Foundation, and to a dedicated arts funding stream known as Project Arts, established by Rudy Giuliani . But the renaissance was short-lived. In the early 2000s, federal pressure from No Child Left Behind legislation led urban school districts to focus more heavily on math and reading instruction, to the detriment of arts classes. In New York City, Project Arts was dissolved, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg began breaking up the city’s dropout factories.

The new smaller schools have a hard time offering specialized programs, whether music or sports. Some principals say that, while they would like to be able to offer music programs, they have to prioritize core academic subjects.

Sandra Burgos, the principal of Astor Collegiate Academy, a school of 481 students on the second floor of the Columbus campus, said that she would love to hire a music teacher, but with limited resources — only 28 teachers and 17 classrooms — she feels it is more important to offer science, technology, engineering and math courses.

“That’s where most of the jobs are going to be for this group of kids,” she said.

In addition to lacking a teacher, the school does not have a soundproof room where students could play music. In the past, a computer teacher led a guitar club after school. But when that teacher left, the club ended, and the school’s eight guitars are now locked in an equipment closet.

Nationwide, high school music participation has “stayed relatively stable over the last 20 years or so,” said Mike Blakeslee, executive director of the National Association for Music Education. But there are significant variations between districts, with districts with more small schools and charter schools falling behind in music participation.

The smaller schools have a hard time fielding concert bands that can perform classical compositions with parts for dozens of instruments. Those arrangements, educators agree, improve individual musicianship, challenge students and prepare them for continued study. In many cases, students who audition for conservatories must perform from a classical repertoire.

Small bands cannot play that material. Janet Grice, who retired from teaching music in the Bronx last year, loves the sound of a big wind ensemble playing a traditional march. But her school didn’t have 10 flute players and eight clarinetists. Instead of classical music, she taught her students to play big-band jazz off lead sheets, a form of musical notation with fewer written parts and more room for improvisation.

Similarly, as the enrollment at DeWitt Clinton High School shrinks, Tim Bayless, a veteran music teacher, must now teach simple, pared-down arrangements of classical compositions to his undersized concert bands. He either writes the arrangements himself, or uses Build-A-Band sheet music.

“The material is good, but obviously, it can’t possibly be as good as something that was specifically arranged, orchestrated, for the bass clarinet here, and the tenor sax there, and all this stuff,” he said. “We try to hold on to as much as we can, and still try to make sure that they’re challenged.” New York City is unique among state school districts in that middle school students are not required to take music. Instead, they may fulfill their arts requirement through one semester each of two approved art forms, which also include visual art, theater and dance.

In other school districts, Steven Schopp, executive director of the New York State School Music Association, said students can expect that “there will be a band for them to play in all the way up through high school. When they go to middle school, there’ll be a band program. When they go to high school, there’ll be a band program.”

That’s not true in New York City, he said.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced $23 million in new funding for arts programs in schools, which included money for 100 new middle school arts teachers and for an “arts continuum project” aimed at connecting arts curriculums in elementary and middle schools. Since then, 26 middle schools citywide have hired music teachers, and 24 pairs of elementary and middle schools have landed a year of shared music instruction from local nonprofits and arts centers, according to the Education Department.

Educators say the key to maintaining a robust music program on small school campuses is collaboration. To succeed, principals must coordinate bell schedules, share classroom space and even split teacher salaries.

On the Grand Street Campus, a former comprehensive school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, once known as Eastern District High School, there are now three schools, and each pays into the salaries of four music teachers. Students from all schools enroll in multiple periods of beginner band and general music, and they can audition for four concert bands and two jazz ensembles.

Initially, the three schools shared one instrumental music teacher who led an after-school ensemble in the old bandroom. As the band caught on, and became part of the curriculum, the schools hired more music teachers, and converted nearby classrooms to music rooms. Today, the music department claims a brown-tiled wing off the main entrance, across from a large auditorium with a thousand padded seats and a bandshell.

Administrators say they struggle to find room for the music classes on the schedules. Along with the Advanced Placement courses, which are also shared across the campus, programming music takes a lot of “juggling,” said Rosemary Vega, the principal of the East Williamsburg Scholars Academy. Some students in the 55-piece wind ensemble, for example, are enrolled during their lunch periods, and grab a sandwich from a cooler on the way to their next class.

There are other challenges. Enrollment at East Williamsburg, the smallest of the three schools, declines every year. Vega frets over the poor showings on the global history regents exams, and graduation rates. Nevertheless, she continues to pay into the band program.

“I could have a teacher-and-a-third in another discipline,” Vega said. “But because we know how valuable it is for the students’ education, for their growth, we do this.”